When cultures clash

Will practise help us have better interethnic relationships?
Will practise help us have better interethnic relationships?


Are interethnic relationships least likely to succeed?

He was a perfect stranger. Just some guy who was driving the cab. But because, in taxis, I sit in the front as my Orstrayan upbringing dictates, I copped the full force of his raw, naked, utterly stunning personal confession:

“And my wife, she is a full bitch and a dirty whore and I wish she would die in the gutter.” (I’m paraphrasing, from notes and memory).

“But I expect that she would go and cheat on me because she’s Aussie. I said to my father-in-law ‘I am going to leave her and go back to India and find myself a good Indian village woman’.

“The worst thing is that she wasn’t even cheating on me with some Aussie; she was having sex with another Indian.”

The tirade was uninvited but almost instantaneous; I’d barely slid into my seat and said g’day before he released the clutch and drove home his message. A message that, at the time, was only slightly less terrifying than the thoughts running through my head (namely: ‘Is he going to lock the doors and do his woman-hate all over me?’).

And besides the many very interesting layers bundled up in his anguish – anguish communicated via a second language it must be noted - that message seemed to be this:

Women and men who are from different ethnic backgrounds cannot overcome their pasts and build a future together.

Now, I realise I am taking the comments of one man – and clearly a man who was very hurt and very angry and very possibly supremely ill-prepared for work that day – as the basis for this entry. But I am intrigued by the idea raised. It isn't that unfamiliar. As such the shockingness of his delivery is somehow, tragically, poetically just.

For we are living in a country that is ever more multicultural, and we are ever more obsessed with the impact of this multiculturalism. Some of us feel it is a terrible thing, and would prefer we all just kept to our own villages anyway. Others believe it is good, and encourage intermingling.

For what it’s worth, I reckon diversity is strength, so long as it’s properly managed. And by properly managed I mean inclusively; you can’t just expect harmony, you have to work for it. You have to practise.

And practise, I feel, is the key word here. practise, they say, makes perfect. practise helps the instrumentalist learn how to connect with the foreign object in their hands so they may make beautiful music, together. practise helps the nervous virgin overcome their fear of foreign flesh and begin to enjoy making love, together. practise can even aid the deadest-fairdinkum Aussie bushwacker achieve the realisation there’s so much more besides curry, green tea and halal kebabs that foreign people have to offer.

Things, for example, like love.

But will practise help us have better interethnic relationships? Could practise help society better understand? Will practise make us better?

Because, if we’re honest, something about the message of my love-worn and scorned cab driver ‘makes sense’. But it is something which makes sense because it is so familiar, not because it is right. Basically, it's the sense that which is different is dangerous. The fear of that what we don’t understand.

Yet how much better would it be if we were more familiar with understanding? If we were more familiar with how difference can bring us together, not how it keeps us apart? We could better modern Australia by practising appreciation for that which is foreign to us, not as something separate and bad but different and good.

Think of the music we could make together. The discordance that comes with lack of practise would jar ever less.

But is so much possible?

A few years ago, Jane Duncan Owen wrote a book called Mixed Matches: Interracial Marriages in Australia*. In it, she concluded that while some relationships triumphed against the odds, those that did not spoke to the big gap between Australia’s multiethnic, multicultural reality and the social expectations that dominate the landscape and national mythology.

More recently, NPR in the United States featured an interesting interview about how these kinds of relationships were on the rise, and some of the problems the people in them faced. Perhaps importantly, for me, as a white, middle-class, Australian woman, at least, it served as a reminder that when we say ‘mixed relationships’ we should not just think along black and white, or yellow and white, or red and white terms. In other words, it’s not about apparent physical differences, but differences in origin that really matters.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with Go Back To Where You Came From – a study in interethnic understanding if ever there was one. But one that also raised the question: Was the mission realised?

I feel we need a lot more practise at actually being the multicultural country we like to think we are before so much is accomplished. I reckon it’s hard for people to find love with those who are ethnically different, and even harder to work through the differences. But I think it’s a good thing to give it a go.

In other words, the people from your village aren’t necessarily better. They are only more familiar. With a bit of practise, most things are possible.

And besides, why should we limit ourselves when it comes to love?

*Yes, I am going to be that person and make a note about why I chose to use the term interethnic and not interracial. My reason for this is simple: ‘race doesn’t exist’, despite colourful words to the contrary. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is another conversation…

This story When cultures clash first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.